Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Strange Catalan Traditions You Need to Know About

If you’re heading to Barcelona’s region of Catalonia, then there’s a pretty decent chance your visit will coincide with at least one of the region’s particularly quirky traditions. Quirky as in fire runs, dancing eggs and a smiling log that defecates candy (seriously!). Strange but lovable, these customs are ones you’ll want to know about before your journey in case of possible convergence.

Correfocs Fraga 2011 by Carlos Alzuria (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Usually we’re more inclined to run away from fire, but not so during this common festival tradition. Translated as “fire runs,” the correfocs are a wildly devilish celebration involving song, dance, parades, satanic-looking costumes and, of course, fireworks and flames. Also called the Ball de Diables, or Devil’s Dance, the tradition is said to date back to the 12th century, and while its origins are unknown, it has long represented the struggle between good and evil. Keen to see one of these crazy, pyrotechnic-filled runs? You can do so on a Correfoc Festival Tour from Barcelona, during which you can head out to a local village and witness the reverie yourself.
Caga Tío

Caga Tío is no doubt one of Catalonia’s quirkiest traditions.

A festive, defecating log of wood? What?! Indeed, Caga Tío — or, loosely translated, Poo Log — is one of Catalonia’s most charming and beloved holiday traditions. Come December 8th, this smiling little fellow is set out so the kids can feed it nightly and care for it by covering it in a blanket. It’s when Christmas arrives that the real action begins: Children sing songs and beat it with twigs, all in hopes it will defecate loads of candy. It’s a peculiar tradition with practical roots, actually: It began simply as an appreciation for the humble fire log which, during cold winters, kept families warm. Of course, this evolved into the more commercial and oddly entertaining version you see today.
El Caganer

El caganer, another star of the Catalan holidays

Another big star of the Catalan holidays is the nativity scene and all of its coveted, collectable figurines. Many homes, stores and, of course, churches relish creating elaborate manger scenes. One extra element is always added in the Catalan nativity scene, and that’s the caganer, a slightly, shall we say, less pensive (about the baby’s birth) fellow. Translated (politely) as “the fellow going #2,” el caganer is a man who is squatting, pants down, and doing his business, usually in some obscure corner of the holy landscape. Theories abound as to the origins behind the famous nativity scene character, which is said to date back to the 17th or 18th century. Want to invest in your own caganer? Pay a visit to one of Spain’s Christmas markets — you’ll definitely find what you’re looking for in Barcelona, and perhaps at other holiday markets in Spain, which occasionally sell the little guy too.

Catalan gegants are a standard part of regional fiestas and parades.

Catalonia clearly has a keenness for curious characters, and the gegants, or giants, are just another one to add to the collection. These tall papier-mache-headed puppets of sorts make their appearance during town (and, in the case of Barcelona, neighborhood) festas majores, the fiestas or events around feast day. This is when the towns (and neighborhoods) celebrate in a variety of ways, but particularly with parades, which include the gegants. Other characters join them, too, including the more human-height capgrossos, or big heads, which often sport goofy expressions in stark contrast to their taller, more serious-faced counterparts. All of these oversized puppets are said to have their roots in the Middle Ages, when they were used to tell stories of the Bible to an illiterate public. Now they are mostly a sign of regional tradition and celebration.

A common sight during regional celebrations are castells.

Catalans don’t just celebrate their festivals with parades, song, dance and food but also human pyramids. Indeed, come fiesta time — ubiquitous week-long parties held in towns around Catalonia and beyond to honor patron saints — trained teams of people, all with specific roles, create the tall human towers called castells. Dating back the 1800s, the careful construction is usually done to the sound of music; men are typically on the lower level(s) to bear the weight, topped by women and, finally, the castle-topper, a child. When the child (helmet-protected) reaches the pinnacle, he or she salutes to the crowd before carefully being lowered to the ground, when everyone exhales a sigh of relief. See the tradition for yourself on a Catalan Culture Half-Day Trip from Barcelona.
Corpus Christi

Come Corpus Christi, expect to go on the hunt for dancing, floating eggs.

The Thursday following Trinity Sunday is the religious celebration of Corpus Christi — sounds normal enough, right? This is when Catalans and Spaniards often celebrate the holiday with parade-like religious processions through town, followed by worship — still pretty standard. But then you sprinkle in some quirky Catalan (well, in this case, Barcelonan) customs. First, there are those aforementioned gegants, which usually join in the processions. But what else makes this celebration so peculiar? Why, the floating, dancing eggs. You’ll find these eggs – yes, literally eggs – bobbing atop spouts of water in top-to-bottom flower-decorated courtyards, cloisters and patios across Barcelona on Corpus Christi. Called l’ou com baila (“the dancing egg”), the tradition dates back to the 16th century and has uncertain roots. Some tales tell of Barcelona Cathedral acolytes who placed hollowed-out, wax-filled eggs in a fountain as the possible impetus behind the tradition. It is also believed the egg could represent the body of Christ (literally, Corpus Christi), and the water, renewal. Whatever the reason behind it, I think we can all agree it’s quite the intriguing tradition!
Sant Jordi Day

Get on board with Valentine’s-style book giving during Catalonia’s Sant Jordi Day.

This tradition is positively delightful — so delightful, in fact, that it inspired UNESCO to declare this day, April 23rd, a worldwide event. For what, you may ask? Books — and in Catalonia’s case, roses too. Internationally known as World Book Day, the event coincides with the celebration of Sant Jordi, or Saint George, and has become a Catalan Valentine’s Day of sorts. Tradition has it that on this day, women give their fellows a book, and the men give the women a rose (though, these days, the book exchange often goes both ways). As such, expect popular city spots (such as Las Ramblas) to be overflowing with flower vendors and booksellers. Indeed, it’s a charming, albeit new-to-most tradition worth getting on board with whether you’re in Catalonia at the end of April or not.


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